The coalition inherited a mendacious foreign policy, leading to two disastrous wars. Time now for an honourable peace
This is a Downing Street “clarification”. When the deputy prime minister says illegal, he means legal. When he says disastrous, he means brilliant. When he says black, he is fumbling for the word white.
On Wednesday Nick Clegg stood at the dispatch box and described the Iraq war as “the most disastrous decision of all” and the invasion of Iraq as “illegal”. Downing Street hurriedly explained that what he actually meant was that the invasion was a triumph of British arms and as lawful as driven snow.
Earlier in the week, the head of MI5 at the time of the war, Lady Manningham-Buller, had vindicated Clegg’s statement. So, too, had earlier evidence from Lord Goldsmith, the then attorney general. To Downing Street, this was of no matter. Clegg was caught between the whirring flywheel of truth and the crashing gears of a mendacious diplomacy. He was torn to shreds.
The Liberal Democrat leader appears to have come unqualified to the task of high office. When pushed against the wall by the arch-warmonger, Jack Straw, he showed himself a serial truth-teller. While this handicap may not be insuperable at home, in foreign affairs it is a killer. Clegg was supposed to lie under political torture, and failed.
David Cameron, who is intelligent enough to agree with Clegg, was in a difficult position. He was visiting Barack Obama in Washington at the time. He knows, with the US president, that Afghanistan is the next most disastrous decision after Iraq. The two men can say that in private, but not in public. There they have to present Afghanistan as a great victory for Nato, a triumph of liberal interventionism. Britain and the US are marching to war shoulder to shoulder against Johnny Taliban and the mussulmen. Defeat is not an option.
Cameron and Obama have emerged from this first bilateral meeting as sensible men who must somehow navigate their respective ways from an inherited war to an honourable peace, amid a western foreign policy that has spent a decade drenched in sophistry.
Commentators are often asked to predict history’s verdict on a particular era, and are well advised to decline. But it is hard not to see western policy in the first decade of the 21st century as sunk in a morass of folly. It was subcontracted to a defence lobby desperate for a role, which it found in exploiting weak leaders by playing on the ideology of fear.
As a result, at the end of the decade western states found themselves spending more money to become less safe, with their global interests more at risk than at the start. The legacy of the victory over communism was squandered. In Britain, policy failed the Ernie Bevin test, that a citizen should be able to buy a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere he damn well pleases.
This has applied not just to the blood-thirsty horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan. It has applied to the stance taken against other peoples opposed to these wars, such as Iran and Pakistan. It has led the US and Britain into contentious relations with the entire Muslim world, fuelling anti-western sentiment not only across Asia but, as Manningham-Buller pointed out, among Muslim populations within the west. The last decade has seen an entire foreign policy elite lose the art of friendship. Bred under the communist threat, the west’s leaders craved a mighty enemy and found it by exaggerating the threat from militant Islam and elevating terrorist gangs to the status of state enemies.
As a result, British policy has relied on one outdated premise after another. It relies on the collective security of Nato, long detached from its supposed purpose and entombed in the citadels of Kabul. It relies on Trident submarine missiles, on an “out of area” fleet and on aerial combat jets, all archaic cold war deterrents. It has an obsession with nuclear weapons that has bred an equal obsession in countries that lack them. Yet it can barely afford a helicopter.
The enmity of states has given rise to the deployment of other counter-productive crudities, such as sanctions on Iran, trade barriers against the developing world and the exchange of rhetorical abuse, beloved of George Bush and his amanuensis, Tony Blair. These two seemed at times to mimic Plato’s tyrants, “always stirring up some war or other in order that the people may require a leader”.
The past decade has been an age of pretence, of the US pretending to police the world, of Britain pretending to be its deputy, of Europe pretending to be America, of Russia pretending to an empire, and of China pretending wealth can substitute for democracy. Europe’s Lisbon treaty pretended it could fashion a new state from the crooked timber of Europe’s national identities and economies, bringing the common currency close to collapse.
Bush and Blair treated the world as an enemy – “He who is not with us is against us”. From French surrender monkeys to Chinese traders, from Latin American drug growers to British computer hackers, from international lawyers to UN mediators, every alien was a suspect foe. Foreign policy lurched into paranoid mode. Guantánamo filled with victims and ludicrous sums were spent on security. The world responded in kind. Airports became nests of xenophobia.
This was nowhere better demonstrated than in Blair’s dreadful January appearance before the Chilcot inquiry, which now meekly claims to be unconcerned with the legality of the Iraq war (so what is it concerned with?). All evidence has testified that the war was a mistake and undermined Britain’s security. Blair’s contradictory display of pro-war self-delusion, arrogance and folly should be a textbook video for any school of 21st-century statesmanship.
Though Cameron’s public remarks on foreign policy so far have seemed reactionary, especially on the war, he learns fast, and is comfortable at summits and in bilateral encounters. His preamble to this week’s successful visit to Washington rejected the past emphasis on a special relationship and recognised that Britain was a “junior partner” but a partner “of choice”. It had its own view of the world. Subsequent confused signals over an Afghanistan withdrawal have hinted that Britain may at last realise some leverage over US war policy.
Everyone wants to leave Afghanistan, the only question being how and when. Britain has more than a stake in this. To leave only the US hopelessly fighting the Taliban would visit on Washington an even lonelier defeat than is implied by the current talk of a phased withdrawal. Obama is on a painful hook. It is for Britain to help him off it without the senseless slaughter of more soldiers.
The prize before these two leaders is now great, of bringing the mendacious bravado of the past decade into line with reality on the ground. It is to end two unnecessary wars and rebuild trust with a Muslim world that has no more interest in the pestilence of terror than does the west. It is to accept that the world is not a place of blocs but of individual states, each with divergent interests and fears. It is to realise colossal savings in defence spending and to shift the emphasis of foreign policy from state-sponsored paranoia to global trade and prosperity.
Clegg is right. So if Cameron cannot yet tell the truth, he can at least mean what Clegg says.
This article was written by Simon Jenkins and was first published in The Guardian, 22 July 2010. Read the original article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/22/clegg-truth-iraq